More Than Just Poor Sleep

Insomnia is about more than just poor sleep. Sometimes it’s about isolation, 24/7.

Insomnia and loneliness go hand in handInsomnia is a lonely affair. No one’s up at night to keep you company, no one’s awake to talk on the phone. Apart from anonymous exchanges on the internet, you’re cut off from the warmth of conversation.

Nor can you give yourself fully to things that might otherwise appeal. Mentally and physically at low ebb, you can’t engage and take pleasure in many activities you normally enjoy.

Darkness restricts your ability to see beyond the walls of your home. You don’t get the long view, the familiar distracters. Inevitably you’re thrust inside yourself. And that can be distressing.

“You have these terrible, terrible night thoughts,” the novelist Ella Leffland said in an interview some years ago. “I think when you have insomnia, this is something that you come to understand very well: that you are alone and you are yourself, and nobody’s going to help you get through the darkest hours.”

Lonely by Day

This sense of isolation doesn’t necessarily end with the coming of the day. Trying to talk about persistent insomnia may make you feel misunderstood and lonelier still, as one participant in a focus group explained: “I feel very isolated about, basically, that nobody can conceive what it’s like … they once had a bad night’s sleep and so they ‘know what it’s like’  and they ‘just got over it’ … so it’s something obviously lacking in me.”

Christie, an insomniac I interviewed for my book, had a sympathetic fiancé, but there was no one in her life who really understood her situation. “I still feel like I’m alone with the problem,” she said. “It’s something that I’m going to have to figure out on my own.”

Avoiding Others

People with chronic insomnia may also turn away from personal contact, isolating themselves even further:

“When I haven’t had enough sleep, I want to be isolated and not have to make a lot of decisions.”

“I don’t contribute in the group chats. I often feel as if I just want to be alone and will disappear during break.

“I feel drowsy, unproductive, grumpy, sometimes tearful and anti-social. I just want to be left alone.”

Insomnia is about more than just poor sleep. Sometimes it’s about isolation, 24/7.

Good Nights, Bad Nights

Even people with insomnia sleep well from time to time. “I know on a sunny day after I’ve had a good night, I’m almost high,” Mary, a writer and former teacher, told me as we sat talking over cups of tea.

The day is wonderful after a good night’s sleep. But what about mornings after really bad nights?

Even people with insomnia sleep well from time to time.

“I know on a sunny day after I’ve had a good night, I’m almost high,” Mary, a writer and former teacher, told me as we sat talking over cups of tea. A long-time insomnia sufferer, Mary appreciates the good days in part because they’re rare, coming maybe one in 10. Yet when they occur, her productivity as a poet soars. The ideas are fresher and flow faster. The right word, elusive on a bad day, comes quickly. “It just feels wonderful,” she said.

Waking up stressed

The day is wonderful after a good night’s sleep. But what about mornings after really bad nights?

At my house they’re pretty grim. Awakening begins with a jumble of thoughts nattering away inside my head. It’s as if my brain never fully disengaged, so much does it seem to be stuck where it left off the night before. Half a dozen aches and pains clamor for attention, too: throbbing forehead, dry eyes, aching arms and shoulders, and a racing sensation in my stomach and chest. Thinking about the day ahead is overwhelming. I feel spent before the day even begins.

Is There a Pattern?

I’ve known all my life that these bad nights occur more often during times of stress. Beyond that, it never occurred to me to wonder if there was a pattern to the good nights and the bad.

Researchers in recent years have wondered just that: is there a predictable rhythm to insomniacs’ poor sleep? Their findings may be helpful to people with sleep problems.

  • Annie Vallieres and colleagues (Journal of Sleep Research, 2005) looked at the sleep diaries of over 100 insomniacs and found there was a predictable pattern of good and bad nights for about two-thirds of the subjects. The majority of them could count on a good night’s sleep after 1 to 3 bad nights. It could be reassuring to know that a better night’s sleep is just a day or two away, the authors write. Predictability of good and bad nights might alleviate some of the anxiety associated with poor sleep.
  • Cindy Swinkels, reporting in 2010 on a study she conducted for her PhD thesis, found that insomniacs can expect a “better-than-average” night’s sleep within 3 days. But “good” sleep may come only 1 night in 6.

What’s the take-home message here? One thing the research suggests is that people who worry about their sleep would do well to keep sleep diaries for a few weeks. If you find you sleep better after 1 or 2 days of bad sleep, recognizing this pattern could ease some of the worry, which may improve your sleep. Download and keep this two-week sleep diary recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to see if there’s a pattern to your bad nights.

But there’s nothing reassuring about having to slog through 5 nights of bad sleep to get to a good night. If this is your situation (or if your situation is worse, like Mary’s), then it’s time to look for help.